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Campaign to abolish California's death penalty begins airing ads

The Prop. 34 campaign is spending more than $2 million on ads depicting capital punishment as a futile exercise that costs taxpayers and coddles criminals.

October 22, 2012|By Maura Dolan, Los Angeles Times
  • The gurney in California's execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison.
The gurney in California's execution chamber at San Quentin State… (Wally Skalij, Los Angeles…)

The campaign to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole launched radio and television advertisements Monday, depicting capital punishment as a futile exercise that costs taxpayers and coddles criminals.

With only two weeks left before the election, the Proposition 34 campaign is spending more than $2 million on ads that will air in San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Polls suggest the measure has been struggling but gaining ground.

"Do you know we have the death penalty in California?" actor Edward James Olmos asks in a radio spot for Proposition 34. "You might not, because we almost never use it."

The ads emphasize how few inmates are executed — 13 since 1978 — and suggest the money would be better used for schools and crime fighting. California's nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office has said the state could save as much as $130 million a year if the death penalty is abolished.

"Death row inmates get special legal teams that work for them, but they don't work or pay 1 cent to the victim's families, like other inmates do," Olmos says. "They just sit in private cells, watching TV."

The campaign's television ad focuses on Francisco "Franky" Carrillo, who served 20 years in prison for a murder he said he did not commit. A judge overturned his conviction and released him last year.

"It took 20 years to prove he was innocent," Olmos said, in English and Spanish ads. "With the death penalty, we always risk executing an innocent person."

Proposition 34 would commute the death sentences of the state's more than 725 condemned inmates to life with no possibility of parole. The inmates would be merged into the general prison population in double cells and be expected to work and pay into victim restitution funds, the sponsors say.

Opponents of the measure are fighting back, emailing "fact sheets," holding news conferences up and down the state and putting their position on mailed slate cards. The opposition has raised less than $1 million, but a campaign spokesman said media advertisements remain under consideration.

Peter DeMarco, a strategist for the No on 34 campaign, said it has relied on prosecutors, police and crime victims to get out its message.

DeMarco complained the advertisement about Carrillo was misleading because Carrillo was never sentenced to death.

"They have not been able to produce a single innocent person whose situation is directly impacted by Prop. 34," DeMarco said.

Opponents have said the projected savings from ending the death penalty are wildly inflated, and their ballot arguments suggest the measure could cost taxpayers. In addition to abolishing the death penalty, Proposition 34 would give local law enforcement agencies $100 million over four years for the prosecution of rapes and murders.

Opponents also complain the backers of Proposition 34 are to blame for the system's delays and predict executions will resume as soon as the state moves to a single-drug method of lethal injection. Court rulings have prevented any executions for six years.

The faces of the No on 34 campaign have been Marc Klaas, whose daughter, Polly, 12, was kidnapped from her bedroom, raped and murdered, and Kermit Alexander, a former pro football player whose mother, sister and two nephews were slain in a case of mistaken identity.

Most California newspapers, including The Times, have endorsed Proposition 34. Natasha Minsker, an ACLU policy director who is running the Proposition 34 campaign, said 40 to 50 volunteers are calling voters each night to ask for support. She said Roman Catholic bishops, pastors and rabbis also have urged their congregations to approve the measure.

"It all comes down to what happens in the next two weeks — if we are able to move the undecided voters," Minsker said.

maura.dolan@latimes.com

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